I distinctly remember the first time I lost a tooth. I was in kindergarten and it fell out on the playground. I was sent to the nurse's office and she kindly cleaned up the blood then gave me a special envelope to put my tooth in that I hung around my neck.
I was beaming with pride as I got off the school bus and walked the 1/4 mile to our house. I couldn't wait to show my mom. I excitedly burst into the house calling out to her only to be met by the sound of the alarm going off.
My mom wasn't home. Scared, and alone I ran back outside to get away from the screaming alarm system.
I was hiding on the hill behind the garage when a police officer drove up to our house. He spotted me and I walked up to his patrol car.
I don't recall what he said to me at all, I was both frightened and determined. I showed him my new necklace and blurted out, "I lost my first tooth today!" It seemed the only words available to me were the ones I was planning to say to my mom.
The alarm continued to yell in the background like an angry toddler. The look on his face indicated to me that I was not adequately answering his questions.
Eventually, my Mom returned from her errand and the police officer moved on. But the experience rattled me to the bone. I couldn’t get the sound of the alarm out of my mind, it echoed in my head as I fought to fall asleep that night - an unnecessary and all-consuming warning of a danger that never presented itself.
Alarms are jarring on purpose. And just like the systems installed in houses and businesses to keep people and property safe, we humans have internal alarm systems too. This internal system is controlled by the Amygdala, which is continually monitoring for something that feels like a threat. When the Amygdala perceives a threat it tells the primitive brain to go into a threat response in order to preserve and protect oneself.
Just like with my experience in Kindergarten, the vast majority of the time, we are experiencing false alarms. We are not in real danger, but our amygdala doesn't know that. Not only do our past experiences, hurts, pains, and traumas, inform what our Amygdala deems as a threat, but ancestral trauma does as well.
It's not just the circumstances we might find ourselves in that trigger a threat response, but seemingly simple and innocuous things like the words spoken can cause the alarm bells to ring. I was once facilitating a retreat where everything was going great. We were wrapping up when a participant made a comment and the team leader responded, "We have to table that Thomas."
In an instant, Thomas started yelling. He went from being calm and professional to overly aggressive. Everyone in the room was shocked, including Thomas himself. Afterward, he came up to me and apologized, "I don't know what came over me" he explained. I did, his alarm system went off.
Even anticipation, a story of fear or worry we tell ourselves in advance, can cause our inner sirens to go off before we even have the conversation. Think of those times you've entered a difficult conversation, perhaps with a boss or parent, and you were on edge, ready for the attack.
Things rarely end well when we react to the alarm, following a patterned threat response. It's because these circumstances require more empathy and logic than the knee jerk reactions our primitive brain can manage.
The good news is, you don't have to react. The sympathetic nervous system manages our threat responses. In the moment, we have the agency to engage our parasympathetic nervous system by literally calming our nerves with some deep breaths. With awareness and effort, we can shift and respond with intention and integrity.
A client, we'll call her Dee, came to me because she was tired of being overly emotional at work. More specifically, she was losing her cool and getting in yelling matches with her boss. She was afraid she might lose her job but she couldn't stop herself from reacting to the alarm. As we concluded our together I asked how things were going with her boss.
"Great," Dee replied, "when he says something that pisses me off I just remind myself that I'll journal about it and work through it later, so I'm able to stay calm and keep my composure in front of him."
Arlie Hochschild said in her conversation with Krista Tippet for On Being, "you can be exactly who you are and take your alarm system off, climb an empathy wall, and get to know people on the other side of it."
Dee learned how to turn her alarm system off and make sense of the stimuli and subsequent feelings that were causing her to lose her cool before. What was even better, Dee felt like she was being more true to herself. And her relationship improved with her boss because she was now able to see things from his perspective, as a result, he was more receptive to the ideas she brought to him.
Save the date for the next Journal Jam, December 16th at 8:30am MST, end 2020 strong and set yourself up to thrive in 2021 by managing your alarm system!